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Latvia and the Hanseatic League

Map of Hanza member cities and trade routes

In Ancient times the main traders in Europe were Romans. They maintained a sharp system of trade routes across their empire. Rome was filled with goods from East and West. After the breakdown of Roman Empire during the so-called “Dark Ages” full-scale trading in Europe was halted. During this time the masters of trade were Byzantines, Arabs, Persians and Chinese.  However when European medieval states started to grow stronger, European traders again begun to compete with their eastern rivals.

Before exploring the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, Europeans sailed three main seas- the North Sea, Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean sea. The Mediterranean Sea was an old trade route. In Ancient times it was the “Greek frog pond“, then it was fully owned by the Romans.  The heirs of Romans were Italian sailors, the Genoa and Venice were the main centers for trade. Constantinople was also important until it was taken by the Turks. North and Baltic seas were less known to Greeks and Romans, few of their sources describes them, there even was expeditions made by Greeks and Romans. But since the shores of these seas were inhabited by less-civilized peoples they did not find them so tempting. So it was the British, Scandinavians and Germans who will make those seas a proper trade route.

One of the first German ports was   Lübeck. It was founded by Duke Henry the Lion of Saxony. Based on good position the city in the 13th century became a base for merchants from Saxony and Westphalia. The word Hansa came from intention to form special guilds to trade with other cities.   Lübeck was especially interested in Baltic region where resources such as timber, wax, amber, furs, etc. came from. Rye and wheat were also important. Also the trade ships were important for the Crusades because ships were used to transport troops to conflict ground.

The Holsten gate of Lubeck

Lübeck and Hamburg made alliance in 1241 marking the start of the Hanse. It was based on cooperation between the cities and guilds to ease up trading and gain profit. Hanse was joined by Cologne and London. The main center of the alliance was Lübeck, it was Imperial Free city which meant that it has vast possibilities than other German cities.  The administration was Hansa Diet founded the 1356.

Because Russia was the important trade source, Hansa moved to the east. Livonian cities, Riga, Venstpils, Cesis, Valmiera, Kuldiga, Limbaži and Straupe became the part of the Hansa.  Ventspils was important port in Courland; ships could sail across river Venta to Kuldiga. Ventspils never lost its port’s importance as now it’s a main rival to the port of Riga. Kuldiga in other hand is no more used for ships.

The port of Ventspils

Riga as the biggest city was center for stock of all trade sources. Many Guilds worked there and it was the main trade spot in Livonia only to be countered by Tallinn ( Reval). From Riga ships sailed to Koknese and from there the route ended in Smolensk, Vitebsk and Polotsk.

The port of Riga

The last trade route from Riga to Tallin (Reval) across the river Gauja was mostly on land and headed to Novgorod and Pskov. In Russian towns Hansa had kontors- trade offices.

The 14th century was “Golden age” for Hansa. It took the monopoly on trading in the Northern seas. Hansa was so powerful that it could even wage war on a sovereign country- Denmark.  Destroying their fleet and sacking their cities Hansa used force to get full control over Scandinavia. However at the end of the century Hansa lost the war to Dutch rival merchants and the Hansa monopoly was broken.

15th century is called the “Autumn of Medieval ages”. The economic crisis did not spare Hansa. As Crusader knight regimes was defeated and Novgorod was annexed by Russian Tzar Ivan III. The cities  begun to rival with each other. Danzig (Gdansk) started to gain much more from Poland and became much larger than Lübeck. The Polish government tried to take over Danzig, but were repulsed. But the Dutch sailors became even more dangerous for Hansa, as they aggressively competed with Hanse. They succeeded making Hansa more and more weaker.

In the 16th century Hansa was no longer a key player. Swedish Empire was more powerful. Russia was no longer in trade business and because of centralization the cities no longer were so independent. Hansa could not make trade route to newly explored New World. The last formal meeting between the cities were held in 1699. The cities of Livonia did not take any part in them long before.

However the power of Hansa has not faded from historical memory. The word Hansa is used in the names of ships, companies (Lufthansa), the Swedish bank Swedbank was called Hansabank in Latvia for many years. There is even a PC Game The Rise of Hansa where Riga is also included (however pretty badly as it is shown as Russian town wit Orthodox cathedrals). Hansa is the symbol for the most active member towns, such as Riga. Riga is proud to be a former member of the Hanseatic League.

The logo of Hansa bakery.

Selected Sources

Hammel-Kiesow, Rolf. (2000) Die Hanse. München: C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung.

Hanno Brand (ed.) (2007) The German Hanse in past & present Europe : a medieval League as a model for modern interregional cooperation? Groningen : Hanse Passage/Castel International Publ.

 

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Curonians against Vikings. The tales of battles and raids.

Curonian Vikings- modern day fiction book

The four Latvian tribes differed from each other in many ways. The Semigallians are said to be mightiest Latvian warriors. That could be true because Semigallians resisted to crusader invasion longer than others did. The Latgalian kings were the richest rulers of Latvian tribes. The wooden fortress and city of Jersika was a large and proud center in Latgale. The last ruler of Jersika Visvaldis is one of the legendary ancient kings of Latvia.  But the Curonians are seen as the great sailors and raiders.  Curonians lived all around the shores of the Baltic Sea.  That’s why they are known as sailors and even as raiders. Today many adventure stories like Curonian Vikings have been made, making the legend of the Curonians as Vikings very popular among national-oriented Latvians.  Let’s just look at some of these tails recorded by Scandinavians.

The archbishop of Habburg and Bremen Rimbert (801-888) tells the story of invasions made by Swedes and Danes in Courland.  First Danish raiders assembled large army of ships and landed on the shores of Courland. The Curonians gathered a large resistance force and defeated the Danish invaders.  They took half of the Danish fleet, gold, silver and other bounties. The Swedish king Ulaf decided to take advantage of Danish failure and sent an army of his own to outmatch Danes. They managed to land unnoticed and attacked the fortress of Zeburg (Ezerpils), they razed it down and pillaged. Overjoyed by their victory they left their ships and gone deeper into Curonian territory. They besieged the fortress of Apulia (Apole) but  met  heavy resistance.  After eight days of bitter fighting the Vikings were desperate and scared by the inability to take the fortress.  They looked for god’s that may help them by making a sacred lottery. When it turned out that none of their gods wants to help them, they wanted to flee.  But their ships were too far away and they risked to be completely annihilated in the bitter chase by the Curonians. In this moment of despair some merchants who were Christians told the Christ may be the only hope. Again they took the lottery and find out that indeed Christ is willing to help them.  The Vikings again attacked the fortress and the defenders were looking for peace talks. While the most eager fighters wanted to destroy the fortress completely, their king decided to negotiate. The Vikings took 30 hostages and gold and silver.

Another popular tale about Vikings and Curonians are a saga of Egil Skalagrimson.  The story tells the tale about Torolf and his brother Egil. Together they managed raids in the Baltic Sea and landed on the shores of Courland. First they assigned temporally peace deal, when it ended they started to raid various parts of Courland. One day they entered the wide river creek and landed on the shore of thick forest. They spread out in groups and found a small settlement. They raided the settlement and the settlers fled with no resistance.  When it’s begun to get dark raiders started to gather up and head for the ships. Torlof returned at the starting point, but there was no sign of Egil. It was too dark to look for him so  they decided to wait for tomorrow.

Egil Skalagrimson

Egil and his man gone thought the forest and found a large plain with houses. They entered the houses, but no one was there, they took all the goods and wanted to leave unnoticed. But then they in grave surprise met the village men in front of them, blocking the way to the forest.  Egil ordered to flee but the wooden fences prevented their escape.  They were captured by the locals and were tied. While locals went on celebrating, Egil managed to untie himself up and rescue his comrades. Egil and his men started to look for a way to get out from the village. In the process they found a large pit where other captured men were held. They turned out to be Danes and they showed the shortcut out of the village. However when Egil and his man left the village, he asked to Danes where he could find a good bounty. He did not want to leave without good pillage. The Danes showed the house of the richest village man. They burned down the rich man’s house and killed all the residents inside. In the early morning they came back to their ships and continued to raid and pillage where ever they could.

There are also records of Curonian attacks against the Vikings. Chronicler Sax the Grammarian tells the story about the Curonian attack on island of Öland. Danes rushed to confront the Curonians. They met them at the port of Jarnlock.  Curonians prevented the Danes from successful landing; they killed many Danish royals and left them in complete panic.  After the sunset Curonian warriors retreated inland and remaining Danes finally established beach positions. At the dawn of the new day battle restarted at new highs. However the Danes managed to form an organized formation when Curonians were just attacking randomly. Danish warriors achieved victory and destroyed the Curonian invaders.

Curonians were vicious fighters, but when they met German Crusaders they fought bravely but were outmatched and were forced to surrender.

Selected Sources:

Radiņš, Arnis. (1996) Ceļvedis Latvijas senvēsturē. Riga: Zvaigzne ABC.

Vasks,Andrejs. Vaska,Baiba and Grāvere, Rita. (1997) Latvijas Aizvēsture 8500 g. pr. Kr.-1200. g pēc. Kr. Riga: Zvaigzne ABC.

Asars, Janis and others. (2008) Kurši senatnē = Couronians in antiquity. Riga: Latvijas Nacionālais vēstures muzejs.


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